Originally published on Independent Australia
Quietly, pretty much under the media radar, a dispute is going on in the global nuclear industry between the advocates of “Generation III ” – big nuclear reactors, and “Generation IV”- small nuclear reactors.
The best illustration of this is what’s going on in Britain right now. There are numerous articles in UK press on the growing unease about the costs and feasibility of Britain’s Hinkley C nuclear project. Some critics of this big nuclear power project are nuclear power enthusiasts, such as Mark Lynas, who just happen to promote small nuclear reactors.
In USA, too, the proponents of Small Nuclear Reactors are lobbying hard to compete with the conventional large nuclear reactors. There are billions of dollars at stake, depending on which side gets contracts for sale of nuclear technology.
However, The nuclear lobby’s spiel to Australia is something different, and very original. No dispute – because the argument is that small reactors would further the large reactor industry. First articulated by Oscar Archer on ABC Radio National, March 2015, the idea is that Australia, in setting up Small Nuclear Reactors, would enable the conventional nuclear industry, and uranium mining, to flourish. At maturity, Australia would be running on PRISM(Power Reactor Innovative Small Module) reactors fuelled by the used fuel we would be receiving, while the world would running on a much larger number of Generation III+ reactors, which we would supply with uranium under a fuel leasing model. The transition to PRISM worldwide would take place on the back of Australia’s pioneering embrace of the technology.
As Archer says, Australia would indeed be the pioneer for the new technology.
And that’s what the USA “new nuclear” lobby desperately needs. They need this, because they’re finding it impossible to go ahead in America. Why? Well it’s those pesky safety regulations imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
What the “Small Nuclear” lobby needs is a “nuclear friendly” country, one with less stringent safety regulations, to set up their nuclear reactors on a test site, . Hence the enthusiasm of those lobbyists for the South Australia Nuclear Fuel Chain Royal Commission, as shown, for example, in a recent Royal Commission Hearing speech by Thomas Marcille of Holtec nuclear company.
Companies like Transatomic Power, TerraPower, Moltex Energy, Tri-Alpha Energy, and Terrestrial Energy would prefer to start the process in America. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has proved to be a real nuisance, since it tightened regulations for the licensing process, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The new nuclear marketers have had to go overseas, first to China, then perhaps to Australia?
Former chairman of the NRC (2011 -2015) Allison MacFarlane, is no help. The long time lines, safety concerns, and high capital cost of building nuclear plants all require a regulatory process that is thorough, painstaking, and costly. “Nuclear is a different beast,” Macfarlane said at the recent pro nuclear Solve Conference. “The problem is not the NRC,” she said at the conference. “It’s the economics” of nuclear power.
The Small Nukes” lobby looks to Australia to take a more sympathetic attitude.